Poker Hands – even those who have never played poker have some knowledge of poker hands, having seen flushes, straights and pairs and so on in movies and on television. However, to play the game it’s necessary to be well acquainted with the actual ranking of poker hands and, crucially, what beats what! Does four Aces beat everything else? Which is higher ranked – a straight or a flush? What are kickers, and do they really matter?
These questions and more are answered in our YPD guide to the best poker hands, so read on…
Poker Hands in Order
Royal Flush – Highest Hand in Poker
The Royal Flush is a very specific form of straight flush (see below), being A♥ K♥ Q♥ J♥ 10♥ of the same suit, and it is the strongest poker hand. Essentially the poker equivalent of a ‘hole in one’ in golf, it would not be unusual for a poker fan (especially in the pre-internet era) to never be dealt a royal flush.
Given that there are just four suits, this magical hand has a mere four combinations from a total of almost 2.6 million. The odds of being dealt a Royal Flush are 0.00015% – to put this in perspective, if we played 20 hands of poker per day, every day, we could expect to average a royal flush every 89 years…
Those who are aware of poker but don’t play might believe that four of a kind (see below) is the top ranking category, but it is, in fact, the straight flush that sits at the top of poker hand rankings. This powerful hand consists of five cards from the same suit which are ranked sequentially, for example J♥ 10♥ 9♥ 8♥ 7♥ (a “jack-high straight flush”). The highest ranked card determines the ranking of hands, so the hand above beats 10♣ 9♣ 8♣ 7♣ 6♣ which in turn beats 8♥ 7♥ 6♥ 5♥ 4♥ and so on.
Given that an Ace can be either high or low, the highest straight flush is Ace-high, as in A♥ K♥ Q♥ J♥ 10♥ (Royal Flush), while the lowest is 5♦ 4♦ 3♦ 2♦ A♦ – a five-high straight flush.
Four of a kind (Quads)
The second highest ranking poker hand, four of a kind – often referred to as “quads” – is, not surprisingly, made up of four cards of the same rank, plus the highest remaining card (the “kicker”). Again, card ranking is key, with J♣ J♠ J♦ J♥ Q♥ (“four of a kind, jacks”) beating 9♣ 9♠ 9♦ 9♥ Q♥, for instance.
A full house – which also has other names, such as a “full boat” or a “boat” – is a two-part hand that features three cards of one rank and two cards of another. Thus, 4♣ 4♠ 4♦ 5♣ 5♥ is a “full house, fours over fives” or “fours full of fives”. The ranking of the three-card portion of a full house – as opposed to the two-card element – determines poker hand strength.
A flush consists of five cards from the same suit that are not in full sequential rank. For example, A♣ J♣ 7♣ 6♣ 2♣ is an “ace-high flush” while 10♥ 8♥ 6♥ 3♥ 2♥ is a ten-high flush, and so on. As usual, the highest-ranking card, and subsequent cards in order, determines strength (see What Beats What).
A straight features five cards of sequential rank, but not all from the same suit. 9♣ 8♠ 7♠ 6♥ 5♥ is a “nine-high straight” and A ♣ K♦ Q♣ J♦ 10♥ is an ace-high straight, which is known as a Broadway Straight. When an Ace is low, we have a five-high straight, such as 5♣ 4♥ 3♦ 2♠ A♥, and this can be called a Bicycle, or a Wheel.
Three of a kind
Another self-explanatory hand ranking, three of a kind, known as a Set or Trips, contains three cards of the same rank. This could be 3♦ 3♠ 3♣ Q♠ 6♥ (“three of a kind, threes”, “trip threes” or a “set of threes”).
Note that there is a distinction between a Set and Trips. If we are dealt a pair of queens, for instance, and the Flop brings another queen, we have a set of queens. Meanwhile, if only one of our hole cards is a queen and two more appear on the Flop, we again have three of a kind, but this time it’s known as trips.
Often it is the kickers which make one three of a kind stronger than another. (See What Beats What).
A poker hand that features two cards of one rank (a pair) and two cards of another rank is known as two pair – 10♥ 10♣ 3♣ 3♠ 9♥ is “two pair, tens and threes” or “two pair, tens over threes” or “tens up”. The rank of the highest-ranking pair determines hand strength.
A pair is simply two cards of the same rank with the three other cards being of three other ranks, typically 7♥ 7♠ K♠ 10♦ 5♠ (“one pair, sevens” or a “pair of sevens”). Note that kickers can be crucial with these hands.
So-called no-pair, or “high card” hands are exactly that. If there are three players remaining in a pot when all streets have been played out, and nobody has made even a pair, then whoever has the highest cards wins. So, with A♥ K♥, A♣ Q♣ and A♠ J♠ and a board of 9♥ 8♣ 7♦ 5♠ 4♠, the first player wins with the best no-pair hand of A♥ K♥ 9♥ 8♣ 7♦ thanks to the king out-kicking the opposition’s queen and jack respectively.
What Poker Hands Beats What?
With the online game providing us with limited thinking time, it can be difficult for new and inexperienced players to have a good idea as to the relative strength of their hand. With this in mind, having covered the ranking categories of poker hands, here’s a selection of examples of what beats what in poker.
Straight flushes are the crème de la crème of poker hands, so beware of prematurely celebrating even the likes of four of a kind on a co-ordinated, connected board because you might come up against a straight flush.
Four of a kind hands are ranked primarily by the strength of the quads ranking itself, and then by the rank of the kicker. Remember that two players could have the same four of a kind but still not split the pot if the respective kickers are of different value. For example, with A♠ K♠ and a 5♥ 5♣ 5♦ 5♠ board, we win against, say, Q♠ 7♥ because our Ace kicker ranks higher than our opponent’s Queen kicker.
With a full house it is the rank of the three-part element of the poker hand that separates opposing hands, so 9♠ 9♦ 9♥ 7♦ 7♣ ranks higher than 5♦ 5♠ 5♣ J♦ J♣ because the jacks in the second hand are playing a minor role. It is important to take care with full houses as it’s easy to get carried away and then find yourself with the dirty end of the proverbial stick.
The aforementioned subject of kickers is an important one as there are many scenarios which see ostensibly irrelevant ‘extra’ cards assume crucial significance. A typical example might see Player 1 with A♣ K♠, Player 2 with A♠ Q♠ and a board of 4♦ 4♠ 4♥ 2♠ J♣, which gives both three of a kind, fours. However, despite both players having an ace kicker, Player 1’s accompanying king ranks higher than Player 2’s queen and is enough to win the hand outright. Similar situations occur with two pair and one pair poker hands.
Pre-flop Hand Selection: To play or not to play…
… that’s the question! Indeed, it is. Hand selection is of paramount importance if we have even the most modest ambitions about achieving kind of success at the tables.
Poker is an exciting, fascinating game, with players vying for contention as a hand progresses. By the time betting has been completed on the River, pots can be enormous and a lot can be at stake. We could be forgiven for focusing most of our attention and effort more and more with each betting street, but it is imperative that we take utmost care in our decision-making right from the beginning.
The pre-flop phase of a hand is, indeed, arguably the most important part of the game. We’ve just been dealt our hole cards and must decide whether we should or shouldn’t commit to the hand. Playing too many hands – being too ‘loose’ – is a sure-fire way to lose money. Folding too much, on the other hand, means that we run the risk of missing out on those opportunities afforded us by decent and speculative holdings that can be transformed to monsters. Poker, like life(!), requires finding a happy medium, a balance which allows us to progress on the quest for success by making the most of our chances but at the same time basing our plays on a solid foundation, with simultaneously prudent but flexible parameters in respect to hand selection.
Poker Card Combinations
It’s interesting, when contemplating the subject of pre-flop hand selection and fundamental strategy, to take note of the numbers. There are 169 different two-card combinations that we can be dealt at the start of a poker hand, and these are made up of 13 pocket pairs, 78 suited hands and 78 unsuited hands. Incidentally, for clarity, ‘suited’ here means of the same suit (e.g., 8h 9h), while an ‘unsuited’ holding contains cards of different suits (e.g., 8h 9c).
Given that the luck – or otherwise – of the deal that we experience every poker hand can throw up so many combinations, we can expect to see a range of hands, from the strongest – a pair of aces – to the weakest holding in Texas Hold’em, namely 72 (being weaker than the ostensibly ‘lower’ 62 because with the latter hand the closer ranked cards create more straight possibilities).
Even newcomers to the game, cognisant of which hands are placed where in terms of strength, easily appreciate that a pair of aces or jacks, for example, is going to perform much better, overall, than 72 or 93 or 22.
This advice might seem obvious but log on to any online poker room right now and, inevitably, you’ll find literally countless players – many with years of experience – who routinely ignore one of poker’s golden rules for one reason or another. One of the many attractions of online poker is the speed of the software that allows us to play literally dozens of hands every hour and, if we so wish, to do play at multiple tables simultaneously. There’s absolutely no need to seek out action every hand because, after folding a trash holding like the aforementioned 72, we’ll soon be given two brand new cards. If they’re also not string enough to justify committing our chips (which is usually the case), then we’ll be dealt in again, and again… It’s not rocket science – it’s patience (and, if we’re being frank, we don’t even need loads of patience when it comes to online poker!).
There are various factors that can be taken into consideration when making pre-flop decisions, but it’s reasonable for new players to adhere – at least on their first steps of their poker journey – to playing around 15%-20% of hands at a so-called full-ring table of 9 or 10 players. This might seem like a small number of hands to get stuck into, but any more than this is skating on thin ice, and poker is the kind of game that, over time, will see that ice crack, with serious consequences to your bankroll. Note that at a six-handed table – the more popular choice nowadays because the more frequent requirement to post the blinds each orbit (two out of every six hands compared with the ‘cheaper’ two out of nine or ten hands at a full-ring table) creates more action – it is feasible to jump into 20% of the pots.
Which poker hands should we play (and not play) pre-flop?
Being selective, then, is an imperative. Having said that, we can’t passively sit around waiting for aces to magically show up. In fact, if we did, we can expect to be so lucky around once per 221 poker hands! The same goes for kings, queens, jacks and so on. But these are not the only so-called premium hands, and it stands to reason that we cannot limit ourselves only to big pairs, not least because by the time we get dealt a big pocket pair we’ll have paid out too much in blinds to justify being so picky.
Fortunately, there are not only other strong holdings with which to get involved, but additional promising candidates that, if handled sensibly, can be very beneficial to the overall cause.
The most obvious of the ‘top’ hands are pocket pairs because, even before any community cards appear, we’re already looking good with a ‘made’ hand. It’s all relative, of course, and pairs can be split up into three groups, namely ‘premium’ in the case of aces down to jacks, ‘medium’ for tens down to sevens and ‘small’ down to twos (‘ducks’).
Premium pairs (AA, KK, QQ, JJ)
Premium pairs should generally be played aggressively, raising pre-flop, the point being to protect our strong hand from being leapfrogged by weaker holdings that opponents shouldn’t be given the opportunity to play cheaply.
Medium pairs (TT, 99, 88, 77)
Medium pairs (TT, 99, 88, 77) are trickier and, poker being a situational game, much can depend on circumstances. But it is not unusual for medium pairs to win pots without improving and flopping a set (three of a kind) can lead to big wins as this made hand can be well disguised.
Small pairs (66, 55, 44, 33, 22)
Small pairs (66, 55, 44, 33, 22) can also win big pots when they hit the flop, but raising pre-flop is asking for trouble and, when out of position, calling is also not a good idea as subsequent raises tend to make the price to see the flop simply too high. Numerous pre-flop limpers can justify calling due to the boosted pot offering attractive pot odds but, generally, folding at any aggression – or even the possibility of running into aggression (particularly when out of position) – is the prudent option. You’ve been warned.
Non-paired Premium Poker Hands
Pairs are not the only premium hands. AKs, AQs and AKo are all worthy holdings we can be aggressive with pre-flop. We will often have the strongest hand pre-flop, as well as the potential to improve further (and in so doing be further ahead) on the flop. These hands are an obvious pre-flop raise (even reraise in the appropriate circumstances) in late position, and it’s often quite feasible to from any position.
Any time we’re dealt an ace that isn’t accompanied either by another one for a pair, or a high kicker, we should nevertheless give our options some proper thought. Suited aces from AJs down to A2s, and AJo, ATo, for example, are all worthy candidates. Note that suited aces bring with them the possibility of making the ‘nut’ (strongest) flush, but they should essentially be treated as drawing hands, and we should avoid committing too many chips. Kickers are key, and many a player has got into the habit of becoming too attached to ‘any’ ace to then find themselves staying involved in a hand when the board brings another ace, only to lose out to a higher ranked kicker.
These are, as the name suggests, hands such as JT, 98, 76 and so on, and of the same suit. They can perform very well because the flop/board can introduce straight and flush possibilities, and of course it’s also possible to pair up on the flop. The upside of hitting can be a very strong and well disguised hand. However, suited connectors can also lead us down a perilous path, especially when making a ’good’ hand that isn’t as good as someone else’s such as a weaker straight or flush. Consequently, these hands must be handled with care, and we should try to play them as cheaply as possible. Furthermore, they play much better in position, from where it can be fine to raise pre-flop, and limping is much more justified than is the case with other hands.
Similar to connectors, but not sequential, suited gappers such as T8s (‘one-gap’) provide both flush possibilities as well as retaining straight potential. It’s a mixed bag of a proposition playing suited gap holdings, and the pros and cons need to weighed up sensibly. Again, ideally the ranking of the cards shouldn’t be too low, it should be cheap to get involved and we should have position. Even if these criteria are met (otherwise: fold!), a pragmatic approach is necessary.
Other Factors to play a Poker Hand
While the cards we are dealt clearly plays a key role in determining whether we enter into a pot and how we proceed to play a hand, other factors also need to be considered. Of course, poker is a complex game, and each of these additional subjects is worthy of close inspection in their own right and therefore beyond the scope of this guide, which is aimed at helping players understand the relative strength of hands, what kind of hands tend to win pots, which hands are worth playing and how they might be played, However, as food for thought, it is worth noting that (not necessarily in order of importance) Position, (relative) Stack Size, Previous Action, Playing Styles of the Opposition, Psychology, Table Image (both ours and that of the opposition) and so on are all deserving of a place to some extent in the decision-making process.
As we have already established, poker is a situational game, and there are no easy rules to follow that will have us getting involved only with the ‘right’ starting poker hands while folding the ‘wrong’ ones. Big pairs and other premium hands like AK are going to justify involvement without much analysis, but there are also a host of other good and promising hands that merit commitment, too. As long as we handle them correctly, not being too attached to a hand if it’s evident that we’re simply not ahead, or our chances of emerging on top are unlikely (or it’s too expensive a price to pay to find out), then we should be happy to play with those hands which fall into the categories above.
However, being selective is key, and the less experienced a player, the narrower the range should be until, with time and increased understanding and appreciation of poker dynamics and so on, it’s possible to play more types of starting hands.
Finally, here are some questions that we tend to receive regarding poker hands: